More species of Vitis, the grapevine, grow wild in the United States than in all the rest of the world combined. And second to apples, grapes are our most widely cultivated fruit. At Grandma’s, there were both wild muscadines trailing up over the trees beyond her property and cultivated American Concords, whose flavor is what most Americans think of as “grape” and wine connoisseurs as “foxy.” The muscadines, which grow only in the Deep South, are the sweetest of the American native varieties. They grow in bunches, not clusters, on vines that often climb into the highest reaches of hardwood forests.
On the border of the woods beyond my grandmother’s garden, vines of wild purple muscadines and tawny scuppernongs—each a variety of native Vitis rotundifolia—could be found trailing up into the trees, entwined with reddish catawbas, a variety of Vitis labrusca, which probably escaped from 19th-century cultivation there. We would spread old sheets beneath the vines to catch falling grapes as we pulled vines down through the limbs. We didn’t worry that the birds left us just a few grapes, because she had Concords trained along the fence and on an arbor.
Making grape preserves that summer with my grandmother remains one of my favorite memories, and I look forward each year to the brief season, which varies from state to state, when I can buy these native American “slip-skin” grapes at farmers’ markets and roadside stands. My waste-not- want-not grandmother would be proud that I know wonderful uses for those vines we would pull down and for the grape leaves as well.
Greeks were among the earliest of settlers in the Lowcountry, and many culinary traditions thought of as purely southern—such as preserving watermelon rind—have long histories in the Mediterranean. Charleston’s Greek Ladies Philoptochos Society first published its excellent Popular Greek Recipes in 1958, including instructions for canning grapevine leaves. Leaves are best gathered in the spring and early summer, when they are large and bright green. The fruits mature in late summer. Then, in the fall, just as the leaves begin to drop, vines can be pulled down—while they are still somewhat green and flexible—and used in wreaths or cut into foot- long twigs for grilling. If there’s a hunter in your family, have him or her bring home some vines while out in the woods in the fall. The bright yellow and red leaves are unmistakable.
© 1992 All rights reserved. Published by UNC Press.